Category Archives: Thinking about feeling

Introvert time

It’s been a big issue for us as a household this year. Ironically, while I’ve done a really good job of talking to my son about how he needs to keep an eye on his need for introvert time, I have entirely failed to factor this in for myself.

Part of the problem is that none of us really fit the normal model for introverts. Not least because we all have varying needs for extrovert time as well. Of the three of us, I think I’m the most extrovert. I need time with people. Some days I need spaces with lots of people. I need stages and audience and performance opportunities and attention and I revel in all of that. If I don’t get a sufficient amount of out there and extroverted time, I get sad.

At the same time, if I don’t get enough introvert time, I get sad. Silence, or quiet. Not speaking for hours. Reading, crafting, disappearing into my own head. One of the great things about my household is that we’re all like this so we can be around each other, and still be having our needful introvert time. I can’t usually do this with other people.

Over the last year, my working life has been much more people orientated. I did quite a lot of office work – which was people-laden. I’ve been doing events work for a local venue, which is hours of full on people-orientated stuff. We’ve been going out and doing book events, and steampunk events, and poetry nights and that’s all full of people, too. I’ve not been thinking about how this balances out, or what I might need for me.

I don’t know what the necessary equation is here. I’m a perverse enough creature that it probably changes all the time anyway. At the moment, my need for silence and retreat is massive. I’m going with that.

If there are neat boxes for people to fit into, I invariably find I need to spend time in both boxes, and time dangling awkwardly in the middle. I struggle with how people are divided up and labelled. I’m rational and emotional. Logical and intuitive. Introvert and extrovert. From a certain perspective I may only be consistent in my inconsistency. It’s difficult to know how to ask anyone to work with this – especially when I’m in retreat mode and not really inclined to people. I need to turn inwards, to reflect, and be separate. And no doubt, even while that inclination dominates me, I will have days, or hours, or odd moments of being totally people-orientated and it will be confusing for me as much as for anyone trying to deal with all of that.

The biggest thing for me at the moment is a refusal to be tidy and convenient. I’ve done so much trying to fit in. I am the square peg for so many round holes, and I don’t want to pare myself down to fit anymore. I want the space for my own awkwardness, for my untidy emotions, for just how cold my reasoning can be, for my inability to do small talk, my lack of natural capacity for making empty, conciliatory noises, my inability to just go along with things. I can’t face trying to fit in any more, and I have pulled away from almost every place where I might have to do that. It gives me more room to breathe.

At some point, my inner tide will turn and I’ll come back in extravert mode, and I think I will still be awkward, over-emotional, uncooperative, untidy… and I have no idea how that will play out because it may be a good deal less quiet… unquiet even.

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Love and understanding

One of the stories we tell each other around romance is that your true love will understand you. They will get you. If a person doesn’t get you, it seems like they are not your true love, or worse still, that they understood what you meant and didn’t bother. Leading to the two great clichés of hetronormative relationship  – the woman who says ‘I’m fine’ when really she isn’t, and the man setting out to have an affair with the words ‘my wide doesn’t understand me.’

In my experience, understanding another human being in any relationship, takes time and effort. You have to really listen to them, and you have to be open to the many ways in which they are not just like you. We find reassurance in similarity, to the point where some people will ignore difference rather than admit it exists. However, when we refuse to explore those differences, we shut down any real scope for mutual understanding, and the perfect love who understood us won’t turn out to be that at all.

What if we told each other stories about love involving a willingness to work? What if true love is the quest for true comprehension? What if understanding was something we built together for the rest of our lives? What if, within that we even had room to change, grow and re-negotiate? What if we didn’t feel threatened by not currently being able to understand someone we love? What if figuring that out looked like an adventure, not a threat?

I can’t count how many times people have told me that significant other people in their lives didn’t understand them. And every time, there’s been a feeling of total unwillingness to even try to fix that. As though working to fix it somehow defeated the object.

I’ve spent most of my life feeling like a bit of a social outcast. I’ve never expected anyone to understand me, and at this point I see this as a tremendous asset. I’ve always expected to work at things. I have found that many people do not share these expectations. With the ones who do, it is possible to form deep bonds and powerful states of mutual compression. Where there is no expectation that understanding will magically happen, there’s also more resilience if either party changes in any way.

I’m tired of stories that present love as something effortless and suggest that effort implies it isn’t real love. I think we need to change this. And they all dedicated themselves to doing what it takes to live happily ever after – even so they weren’t always perfectly happy because life doesn’t work like that. But mostly it was good, and they took care of each other and did not take each other for granted.


The power to choose how we respond

There’s a popular line of wisdom that goes ‘we always have the power to choose how we respond’. For general purposes, it’s a useful line of thought. Often, when we have nothing else, we do still have power over our own reactions. What we say and do in response to circumstances is ours to decide, and how we act throughout an experience is our choice.

Except when it isn’t.

This failure to recognise what happens when you no longer get to choose how to respond is really unhelpful for people who experience that.

You don’t get to choose how to respond unless you are able to move or express yourself in some way. There are many physical conditions that can take some, or all of that away. You may still get some choice about what you think, but there are also illnesses, accidents and experiences that can rob you of this, as well.

Panic attacks are not a choice. Hiding them is feasible for some of us sometimes, but not for everyone. A severe panic attack takes away your choices about what you can do and say, think and feel.

Conditioning – which is most likely to happen in an abusive and controlling situation – takes away your ability to choose. If pain and fear have been used to train you to react in certain ways, you don’t have the freedom to choose your responses until you have first dealt with the conditioning.

Everyone has a breaking point. For all of us, there is scope for experiencing more than can be coped with and breaking down in a way that means there is no choice about much of what we do. Anyone can be driven mad by excesses of horror, and suffering, by gaslighting, by sleep deprivation and other forms of torture.

Not having the power to choose how you respond is a terrible thing to have to deal with. We do not have to add to that by repeating the lie that we all, always have the choice of how to respond. Sometimes there are no options available. Sometimes minds and bodies are too broken for choice to exist.

 


Suicide and selfishness

Trigger warnings, in case the title of the post wasn’t entirely clear on that subject.

This week has seen World Suicide Prevention Day, and a lot of conversations around why suicide happens and how to stop it. The idea that suicide is an immensely selfish thing to do has been challenged a fair bit, but, I wanted to pick over the mechanics. I feel this one keenly.

I’ve had a lot of rounds of wanting to die – not necessarily wanting to take my own life, but just wanting it to be taken from me so that I might stop hurting. I have also had rounds of wanting to take my own life and moving towards acting on that. Those rounds had one thing in common – the growing belief that it was the best thing I could do for everyone else.

When depression gets its teeth into me, I feel awful, useless and worthless. I feel like I’m a burden to everyone else, a nuisance, a problem. If my being depressed has a negative impact on other people, if my not coping causes someone else a problem, that suspicion creeps in that the best thing I could do would be to offer my absence. Usually I just step back, go silent, disappear, but death is the ultimate absence, and sometimes it starts to look like the single best thing I could do.

There are so many things around how people often respond to suicidal feelings that really, really don’t help with this. Here’s a non-exhaustive list. Calling it selfish. Focusing on how suicide would harm other people. Demanding that you get meds so as to not make the other person uncomfortable. Shutting you down when you try and talk about what you’re feeling because it makes them uncomfortable to hear it. What all of this does, is to make the suicidal person the least important person in what’s happening.

If you’re staying alive so as not to inconvenience someone else or to avoid upsetting someone, this is not a strong position to be in. Whether it’s ok to keep living or not becomes an equation in which you weigh their comfort against what you do. The worse you feel, the more depressed and stuck you are, the harder it gets to persuade yourself that the upset you’d cause by leaving is not in fact greater than the harm you cause by staying. When you’re feeling awful about yourself, it is hard to see your existence as anything other than innately toxic.

If you want to feel comfortable dealing with someone who wants to die, you are not the best person to be talking to them. That might feel uncomfortable, but I think we need to ask people who are largely ok to think carefully about how they prioritise themselves when dealing with people who are desperately ill and in massive distress.

If you want to keep someone alive, you may have to engage with what’s going on for them, and that may hurt. Consider whether it hurts more than the prospect of losing them. Consider what you can say or do to boost their sense of self-worth so they might want to live for their own sake. If you make it about you, then you may well be piling on the pressure and adding to their stories about how little their own life is worth.


Recovering from trauma

It’s been a slow process and I’m not entirely there yet. I’m a lot better than I used to be. Here are some things I’ve learned about recovery along the way, and what helps, and what doesn’t.

I could not start to heal until I got to a place where I was not routinely being triggered and terrified. This might sound like a no-brainer but I had a fair few people expecting me to get well when I was still not safe. It’s only since I’ve had time feeling reliably safe that my body has started to respond to life like safe is normal and threat isn’t.

I have not gone at the pace some people thought I should. Being told (by people with little or no experience of trauma) what I should be like, and what kind of medical interventions I should have, etc has done the exact opposite of help. What I needed was time feeling safe. People pressuring me to fix at a rate that suited them have not made me feel safe- quite the opposite. Getting these people out of my life has helped me heal.

Focusing on the small scale stuff has helped a lot – rest and time outside, good food, things that work for my body. Being supported in this has been a great help. Not dealing so much with people who have felt the main thing was to get me back to work, not to get me well again.

Surrounding myself with people who are kind and supportive, and who only challenge me in ways that help me to grow. I haven’t always made the best decisions about who to spend time with, and looking back at some of the connections that dragged me down, demoralised and exhausted me, I can see they really weren’t helping. Again, it’s taken me a while to learn how to pick my people. Gentle and supportive environments are best for healing. With gaslighting in my history, I am a lot better off when I don’t have to constantly try and second guess the people I’m dealing with nor worry about what they might imaginatively infer from what I do and say.

As my life and my environment have become gentler and kinder, recovery has become easier. I don’t trigger as often as I used to in no small part because there is so little in my daily life that could trigger me. A key piece of learning for me around this is that people who are dismissive of what I find difficult and can’t be bothered to find out what might be ok for me, are not people I owe anything to or need to spend time with.

I think if you’re trying to help someone recover from a traumatic experience, the best thing to do is not to try and fix them. Attempts at ‘fixing’ can be really invasive, and make the recipient feel like they don’t have control of the situation. That loss of control contributes to trauma. People need to heal on their own terms and in their own time – and too often the people who self announce as healers and rescuers and try to force changes on their own terms and timescales aren’t helpful. If the person being ‘rescued’ doesn’t heal fast enough they can face anger and blame, which does not help with the healing. If the person being ‘healed’ doesn’t want to do the thing, or take the thing the ‘healer’ is adamant about, this too can get nasty. Not everyone who says there are here to help is actually helpful.

What best heals a person, is safe space. Having a kind, supportive environment where you won’t be told off for failing to miraculously recover, makes all the difference. To help someone heal from trauma, it’s best to do very little – show up, be friendly, be kind, be interesting, accept any limitations, be patient. Give people the time and space to fix themselves, and that tends to be what happens.


The massive power of tiny words

I’ve written before about how the word ‘just’ can be used insidiously to downplay things – ‘just a hobby’ ‘just a bit of fun’… today it’s the word ’if’ that I want to scrutinise. It’s a very small word that can have massive impact.

For example… I’m sorry if I hurt you. I’m sorry if you took that the wrong way. I’m sorry if that caused offence. I’m sorry if I’m bothering you. I’m sorry if you feel that way.

The carefully deployed ‘if’ can have a number of impacts. It can create uncertainty – which may undermine what someone else was saying. It suggests the person iffing isn’t confident about whether there really is a problem. Often it also functions to gently shift the balance of responsibility over to the other person, indicating that the person doing the iffing isn’t responsible for how anyone else has taken things. It’s the language of minimising and downplaying issues.

As with my above examples, using ‘if’ this way is also part of making a non-apology. This is where you say something that has the words of apology in it but fails to do the job. “I’m sorry if you were upset by that” is not an apology – it recognises no responsibility for harm caused, no regret and no desire to fix things. It’s a statement to get a person off the hook, not to resolve a situation or undo harm done.

The specific use of ‘if’ is not a thing you can easily call someone on in a conversation. It’s such a small word that you might not even notice it go by. But if you come out of conversations feeling like you’ve not been heard and respected and you don’t know why… if it always seems to be your fault and you can’t pin down how that’s been expressed… there may be iffing involved.


What if all pains are birthing pains?

This was a question Imelda Almqvist asked on Twitter recently. You should follow her – https://twitter.com/ImeldaAlmqvist

I experience a lot of pain – most days at least some part of me hurts. Sometimes all of me hurts. I also experience emotional pain especially around depression, anxiety and historical wounding. If all of these pains are birthing pains, it leads to the question of, what am I birthing?

The physical pain I experience isn’t necessarily doing anything useful – at this point I have so much self control, stoicism, coping mechanisms etc that I don’t feel there’s any case to be made for it being character building. It does sometimes come as a consequence of what I do – physical activity tends to lead to pain. My Tai Chi teacher talks about this in terms of weakness leaving the body – a nice thought form. So, I am in the process of constantly birthing a body that will carry me through the rest of my life and will hopefully be able to keep moving, even if it does hurt.

When it comes to emotional pain, I think this might be a useful question to ask. What am I processing? How am I changing? What new self am I birthing in the process? What old wounds am I exposing to the air? What can I heal? What can I make out of this? Not because it is an absolute truth that the pain is a birthing pain, but because I can chose to think about it that way.

What my experiences of pain lack, that birthing pain has, is self-announcement. Admittedly, I had a lot of trouble getting anyone to take me seriously when I was in the early stages of labour – too much stoicism and self control, not enough screaming and crying… But when you’re squeezing out a whole new person, people expect you to be in pain and suffering and struggling and are likely to try and help and will eventually take you seriously… Most pain isn’t like that. One of the problems with ongoing pain is the likelihood of being treated like you’re making a fuss, being a hypochondriac, attention seeking, lazy and the like.

So here’s another question. What would happen if we all took pain more seriously? Our own and each other’s. What would happen if all pain was taken as seriously as birthing pains?


Pain, fatigue and mental health

Pain and fatigue make moving unpleasant. However, if you’re dealing with them for the long haul, you can’t just rest. Too much rest costs you strength, flexibility, other kinds of body health and it also has a mental health impact. Pushing against pain and fatigue to be active can undermine your mental health too. There are no easy answers here, and I think some days there aren’t even any right answers available. You can only do the best you can with what you have. Anyone telling you that some fairly simple thing will magically fix you does not understand the nature of the problem.

When dealing with short term problems, ‘listen to your body’ is good advice. However, when the hurting is long term, and all your body wants to do is avoid pain, this doesn’t work. Modest exercise encourages blood flow which can help with healing. Lymph fluids don’t have any pump to circulate them and they need moving about – which means you have to move about. Muscles get weaker with lack of use, and everything gets harder and hurts more and you circle into even smaller spaces with less scope for living. Keeping moving is hard, figuring out how to do it safely is hard, and not everyone who is a professional in this area reliably knows what is safe for whom. Yoga and mindfulness are not actually good for everyone.

The conclusion I’ve come to is that it may be better to take risks with my body and focus on maintaining my mental health. If I can keep my head together, I can manage the pain and fatigue. If I plunge into depression and anxiety, bodily wellness cannot save me. So, when there’s a tension between different needs, I look most at what will best serve my mental health. There are so many days when listening to my body results in a set of contradictory messages. Bits of me need things that other bits of me will find difficult. I trust my head. In practice, my head is the bit of me that keeps the whole show on the road. If I can focus, if I have willpower to deploy, if I can reason well – I can manage everything else that much better.

It works for me – as well as I think anything can. It may or may not work for anyone else. What you’re dealing with is personal, and probably complicated in its own ways. How you navigate has to be personal, and it has to be based on your needs and priorities. Sometimes, no matter how positive you are, how much you focus on healthy life choices, doing all the right things, sometimes bodies still go wrong and hurt and decline to move much. It may mean you don’t entirely know how to manage some aspect of what you’re dealing with. It may also mean there are things that happen that cannot be managed, they’re just how it goes. When focusing on wellness, it is important to remember that there isn’t always a magic combination that will make you perfectly well, and if your body hurts it is not proof that you’ve failed in some way.

For some people, a change in diet or other lifestyle features can solve a problem – if that’s you, great. But I’ve also watched people trying to find magic bullets for problems and not getting anything to work. I’ve seen that turn into strange, faddish diets that rapidly caused more harm than good. I’ve seen it turn into a fear of doing all kinds of things. If trying to be well is narrowing your life options then it may not be working. Not everything is fixable, and learning to make the best of what you’ve got can be the most helpful and most liberating thing.


Negotiating relationships

It is scary being totally honest with another person. Talking about the things that are most raw and relevant around how you feel, what you want, what works for you and what doesn’t. It can be terrifying as it leaves you wide open to being judged and you give the other person in the conversation all the keys to your most vulnerable parts. Not everyone is worthy of that kind of trust, certainly.

And then, if they will do the same for you and share their truth then you may have to look at where that doesn’t fit together. What one of you craves may be off limits for the other. What one of you struggles with may have been mistakenly repeated by the other. Squaring up to having got things wrong for another person is uncomfortable to say the least. It may be more tempting to get defensive and justify what you’ve done rather than listen and learn. That of course is an honesty-killer.

Often you can’t tell if someone will prove worthy of that trust without exploring what happens when you share. To be as open and honest as you can be and have that turned against you is a nasty experience – I certainly have t-shirts for that one. For each knock back the process of getting up and trying again with someone else is hard. But equally, each time someone responds in kind with open hearted truth, it gets easier.

So much more is possible when you can be that real with someone else. It’s true in every kind of relationship shape. If you can speak honestly and be heard, if you can listen open-heartedly and if there is respect on both sides, anything can be worked through. The possibilities grow tremendously. In friendships and romances alike, so much more is available when you can afford to put your heart on your sleeve. Without the risk taking of opening up, there’s far less scope for understanding, and for the magic you can co-create when you’re working open heartedly with another person.

Without deep honesty we’re mostly stuck playing out socially prescribed roles. We take relationship shapes that seem normal, and re-enact them no matter how ill suited we are for the part. We do what we think we are supposed to do – and that can be a narrow, miserable sort of outcome with no magic in it at all. Our standard-issue relationship shapes don’t allow for the nuances of specific people, and it’s only when we approach each other with honesty that we can have relationships based on who we are, not who we think we should be.


Learning to be angry

Anger is the emotion I struggle with. Other people’s anger can drop me into a state of panic. My own anger frightens me as well. For much of my life what’s happened is that I’ve managed to feel it – anything from crossness onwards – for perhaps a minute or two, and then it crumbles away into despair, or turns around and becomes self hatred. I’ve spent too long in spaces where everything was always my fault, and getting angry would only have made things more dangerous. When you can’t safely express dislike in a calm way, you certainly can’t lose your temper.

I’ve carried the fear that if I did get angry, it would be like the crushing experience of other people being angry with me. I would become what I loathe and fear. Horror in response to my own anger has kept me from looking at those feelings.

Anger has a lot of protective qualities, and I’ve seen that in other people. Anger can be a fair response, defending boundaries and pushing back against injustice. These are aspects of anger that I need in my life. In my history, their absence made me more vulnerable.

I’ve had two powerful experiences with anger recently. One came as a response to the heady mix of entitlement and wilful ignorance – a man who wanted to talk to me about how hard it is being heterosexual. I had an intense rage response, which I did not manifest and pointed out that queer people are subject to violence and ostracism and he isn’t… and when he tried to argue with me, I walked out. Feeling like being straight makes you ‘uncool’ is not the same as fearing physical violence. I did not stay to be wound up by him, or to waste energy trying to educate him. I did not support his view of himself as a victim – I’ve seen him try to do this before.

My second round with anger was brief and more nuanced. I was decidedly angry about something, and that anger enabled me to say a clear ‘no’ where previously I might have had trouble holding my boundaries. That of itself was both useful and powerful. It took me about half an hour to stop being angry, and then a whole bunch of things became visible – that I could see the other person had acted in error, not malice, and that no great damage had been done. I could also see that by holding my boundaries I had not only protected myself, but the other person as well – if we’d played out that mistake there would have been distress all round. I avoided that.

Protective anger has the scope to protect everyone in a situation. Anger is not an inherently unreasonable emotion – it’s taken me a long time to see that. It isn’t innately destructive. It certainly isn’t always a bad thing.

I’m going to be making more space for the quieter part of the anger spectrum – for crossness, frustration, annoyance, irritation and things of that ilk. I’m going to make sure I hold them carefully when they show up and that I look at them properly. I’m going to include them in my decision-making. Anger does not make me a terrible person. So long as I’m dealing with decent people, there should be room for getting irritable, annoyed and frustrated, and dealing with it appropriately – not with tantrums and power games, but with reasonable expression of what’s felt, moving towards making whatever changes are necessary.

Emotionally speaking, I have a whole new landscape to explore, and I think it’s one that will benefit me greatly.